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Series: Elements of Structure Part 2: Shock and Awe

Part 2 of the Elements of Structure Series

When I clicked on this link this morning, I did not know who the producers were. I had no idea about bias, message, or author’s purpose. I just sat and watched it, thinking it a sweet narrative.

Normally I’m not so blinded by the surprise, the hidden but the overarching message. I didn’t think I was susceptible to misdirection: why? Because I know what it means–how can we be tricked when we invented the magic?

But I was, and the effect was devastating.

No spoilers here. I’ll allow you the same effect–would love to hear your comments, though.

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Series: Elements of Structure Part I: Effect


As we weave in the CCSS into our instruction, create engaging work, etc. it’s my nature to dive deeply into the subject area–to me, that’s what great teachers do, even if they know a subject intimately. It’s the artist in me: there’s always more to observe and try. With that in mind, I am writing a series on structure, craft, and style.

The first idea I want to share comes courtesy of my intelligent and wonderful colleague, Tami Gores. She and I are both working with coaches, and also have a common ground understanding of my friend and mentor, Holly Stein. (I mention this because it’s refreshing to work with someone who understands me, and I hope she feels the same. In this world, having any shared history with a colleague is a gift.)

She is the Queen of Co-Constructed Anchor Charts. The first ah-ha moment she provided me was the idea of how structure influences effect:

Courtesy of Tami Gores
Courtesy of Tami Gores


We ELA teachers understand the rudimentary plot diagram:

From Chalkboxtales.blogspot
From Chalkboxtales.blogspot

But structure is so, so much more than this. This is the little engine that could, and while important to teach, it’s a place to start. This series will explore these ideas. With Tami’s help, and working with other ELA folks in my building, I’m sure we’ll come up with wonderful shared instruction for our students that’s relevant and empowering.

To me — there are few things more empowering that understanding another’s story. Stay tuned.

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750 and counting.

Seven hundred and fifty minutes represents five classes of core/honors ELA classes, multiplied by ten days, fifteen minutes each period. For every student, in two weeks’ time, each one has read 750 minutes.

And to my shock and awe, at no point did I give them some long lecture about how to read, what to do during reading time, what to think or how to behave. I didn’t co-construct an anchor chart or show them my PowerPoint called The Reading Zone based on Nancie Atwell’s work. 

My student teacher and I kept it simple: 

  1. Put out hundreds of books — (yes, this has cost me thousands of dollars): everything from graphic novels, Calvin and Hobbs, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, novels of all genres, resource/science books (I have a thing for resource books).
  2. Told them to pick a stack of two to three, so if one lost their interest they could go to another one.
  3. Give them time to read at the beginning of class, first fifteen, with a nod to the Book Whisperer and Ethical ELA.

What have we observed? They’re reading. They’re actually reading. Not fake reading, not complaining, but asking for more time, like they’re getting away with something–it dawned on me that this might be the only quiet time they get in their day. They don’t distract each other, they don’t talk, they’ve been asking to check out books from my classroom library, they’ve been stashing and hiding books to make sure they have the one they want when they come in the classroom, and been asking for more title options of genres they like. (Yes, S, I will find more romance for you!)

Now that’s not to say that mini-lessons, co-constructing ideas about approaching texts and media will not follow or be threaded throughout this year. They absolutely will be. That’s my job and passion. However, I’m adjusting and refining my own instructional approach with the skill-based focus from the district and coaches/admin. It’s hard to take a critical lens toward one’s practice sometimes, but the only way to move forward. I am seeking a balanced approach to skills/strategies, and may have to continue looking outside one PLC for creative and innovative approaches.

Case in point: I discovered during conferencing time with every student that the vast majority could not articulate why they were learning about claim, evidence, and reasoning–a skill that has been the focus of the first quarter. Though we as a staff have done CERs for years and created rubrics, etc. this year it’s the mandated focus with rubrics and scaffolds created outside of our PLC. And focusing on one skill isn’t inherently bad educational practice, and it’s understood it isn’t the only one, but it’s the only assessment that’s being discussed or analyzed. The scaffolds are formulaic and helpful. There is no question students need directions that are clear. So what went wrong?

Or maybe I’m asking the wrong question: what went right?

Did I have my learning targets and success criteria dutifully written on the board, and express those to students? Of course I did. Of course my student teacher did. Did we scaffold and break down? Yes, as best we could.

But teaching that skill in isolation away from purpose was a destructive approach, one I’ll not do again. If we decide as a PLC/staff to participate in a singular, monolithic skill to teach it is my intention to make sure students participate in the construction of their purpose first.

What goes right is showing them how they’re getting it–and on my part to be honest and transparent–to tell them, hey, I realize some of this slid past you: let’s look at it a different way.

I know getting the materials pre-designed created confusion for myself and others–we wanted to help create it, too, and engage in the process. So if we teachers are feeling this way, imagine how students must feel?

Bored, disengaged, and fatigued.

Enter Ken Robinson. This particular TEDTalk contains so many nuggets of wisdom, for all learners.

One estimate in America currently is that something like 10 percent of kids, getting on that way, are being diagnosed with various conditions under the broad title of attention deficit disorder. ADHD. I’m not saying there’s no such thing. I just don’t believe it’s an epidemic like this. If you sit kids down, hour after hour,doing low-grade clerical work, don’t be surprised if they start to fidget, you know?

And yes, we are focused on testing. They are the dominant culture of American schools.

The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. That’s it. And part of the problem is, I think, that the dominant culture of education has come to focus on not teaching and learning, but testing. Now, testing is important. Standardized tests have a place. But they should not be the dominant culture of education.They should be diagnostic. They should help.

And yes, I am taking control and direction of my classroom. I’ve worked too hard, passionately, and productively, to craft a professional life that is best for students. I maintain a growth mindset, and seek wisdom at all levels–to me there is no such thing as rookie or veteran: every colleague has something to offer and share.

And the third is, they devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done. You see, there’s a big difference here between going into a mode of command and control in education — That’s what happens in some systems. Central or state governments decide, they know best and they’re going to tell you what to do. The trouble is that education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working. You have to put it back to the people.


There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you’re not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. You see, in the end, education is about learning. If there’s no learning going on, there’s no education going on. And people can spend an awful lot of time discussing education without ever discussing learning. The whole point of education is to get people to learn.


And until we understand and accept committees can only create so much before creative professionals want to add their own nuances we will lose the ability to move forward. Blueprints and frameworks are only as good as providing a foundation, not decorating the house.

And the third is, they devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done. You see, there’s a big difference here between going into a mode of command and control in education — That’s what happens in some systems. Central or state governments decide, they know best and they’re going to tell you what to do. The trouble is that education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working.You have to put it back to the people.

So I’ve taken control of my classroom. I am hoping others in charge ask me what I’m doing, what’s been successful, and where I’ve had to tweak and adjust.

Conferring with a student on Friday, she seems intelligent and creative, but is clearly bored with school. We spoke for awhile about personal motivation, and finding what sparks us individually. I hope I can inspire her.

The point is that education is not a mechanical system. It’s a human system. It’s about people, people who either do want to learn or don’t want to learn. Every student who drops out of school has a reason for it which is rooted in their own biography.They may find it boring. They may find it irrelevant. They may find that it’s at odds with the life they’re living outside of school. There are trends, but the stories are always unique. I was at a meeting recently in Los Angeles of — they’re called alternative education programs. These are programs designed to get kids back into education. They have certain common features. They’re very personalized.They have strong support for the teachers, close links with the community and a broad and diverse curriculum, and often programs which involve students outside school as well as inside school.And they work. What’s interesting to me is, these are called “alternative education.”

Where am I going with this reading thing, anyway? What are the next steps? November is a funky month, that’s for sure. This next week we have student-led conferences (which is where I discovered 90% of my students had no clue as to why they were doing what they were doing, in spite of intentional purpose from not only me but the other content area teachers, too). We also have short days, Thanksgiving Break, and then we’re finishing up a unit I created about Honor. December will be my annual “drabble a day” writing. I was heartened when one of the most intelligent students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach sent me an email asking if I was doing that again and if I would start the writing club this year.

Have no doubt that our students, and ourselves, want choice and growth. They want forums and places to create and share. Their purpose for learning is more than a learning target and the message of intent and importance. The thing about ELA that’s different from other subject areas is sometimes it can’t be contained in a simple formula. That ambiguity is difficult to accept.

Oh, in terms of conferring: this is a ‘just in time’ idea:

Conferring with “If… Then… Then… Then…” in Mind

And assessment that’s important and valuable:

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How to survive a bear attack.


Your neck tingles. You feel the hot breath, tinted with salmon bones and gooseberries, mingle in your cheaply-shampooed hair; feeling unprotected, vulnerable, and instinctually aware, you know someone just played the research card, and it feels like a bear attack–wild, demobilizing and terrifying. How do you survive?

Remember that word ‘collaboration’ we’re so fond of? Well, this is where it’s put to the test. When our personalities and teaching styles clash with others, and deductive reasoning paints us in a pedagogical corner, we’re left with few other options than to go to the research well and find other credible experts who support our own teacher-action research and experience. Sometimes it seems our own knowledge and experience aren’t worth the certificate paper it’s printed on. Conversely, when we are convinced of our methods, so sure that our approaches are the best and right, we do so at our peril and ignore a balanced approach. In other words, we’re all trying to do our best, but what if others don’t see our best as credible? 

The specific controversy is about independent reading time. There are hundreds more in education. Here are the links to the authors: 

Strategic, solid teachers are constantly striving to hone their craft, and honor their own life experience. Shanahan argues that independent reading time is a waste of time. I claim trying to make teachers into robotic close-reading drones is worse. Far, far worse. 

After reading the key points, I condensed these ideas:

  • Asking anyone to sit for twenty minutes with a book/text of their choice and independent reading level feels hollow and difficult. If you use it for babysitting time while you check e-mails, etc. students quickly grasp the hypocrisy. When they read, you read.
  • Go back to Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle
  • Make your shared text time as meaningful and enlightening as possible in order for students to return to their independent reading time armed with confidence and courage. This is THEIR time, their passion, which leads me to the next point:
  • Get to the heart of what’s stopping them–themselves. If they haven’t found what sparks their curiosity, there’s some work to be done. Use a burning questions approach and return to one’s inner world of what’s on their minds.
  • And yes, more time reading is good. This has been decades-long repeated research. 

And ELA teachers: there is no question we have it tough, but our work has never been more important. My observations and anecdotal data collection includes the increased amount of time students, especially of poverty, spend consuming media and not creating.The struggle to convince students into having faith in me, that we’ll get to use their laptops for creative ends, and bear with me while we do forumulaic mandates. But yes, I’ve seen good close-reading lessons, controversial discussions and working through big thematic, enduring understandings fill their minds with good stuff. 

This blog post by John Spencer sums it up for me, and something I hold dear: “Should Schools Be More Confusing?” Yes. And teachers should allow each other to practice research and ask the tough, inquisitive questions, too. 

“We’re developing a new citizenry. One that will be very selective about cereals and automobiles, but won’t be able to think.” –Rod Serling

Not on our watch, Rod. We’re prepared.

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Nailed it.
Nailed it.

Yesterday I spent 15 minutes searching for a website/resource I want to use this year. I couldn’t find it in my bookmarks, or remember its name, just that I discovered them at NCCE, and could have sword that I wrote about them in a post-convention post. Nope. Nowhere. But I did find it in my bookmarks, (forgot which browser I had it on), and gathered the needles and built a new haystack for colleagues.

(I really need to do a better job of tagging these posts.)

In my head:

From The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
From The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

You need this book.

And links:

Actively Learn


Artifact (DiscoverArtifact)


Podcasts for teaching (link to fictional podcasts — but there are many to choose from for informational/argumentative topics)

And solid books in print: